ELMONT, N.Y. – WSS Racing’s Barber Road, listed at odds of 10-1 in Saturday’s Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets, has only just arrived in New York. But his trainer, former Elmont-resident John Ortiz, is hopeful of a homecoming to remember.
“I moved to New York when I was five,” said Ortiz, a native of Colombia. “I went to Gotham Avenue Elementary and then to Elmont Memorial High School.
“As a kid, I spent as much time as I possibly could at Belmont. I remember leaving after school to run to the backside,” he added. “I got my first job there with Bill Mott and started hotwalking with him.”
His father, Carlos, a former jockey, galloped horses for Mott and a young Ortiz was keen to follow in the family tradition, learning the ropes on a multiple stakes placed mare named Brown Eyed Lass under the watchful eye of the Hall of Fame conditioner.
“I got on my first racehorse for Bill Mott,” Ortiz said. “He took me on the track with the pony and we jogged together for the first time. I was hooked ever since.”
Ortiz worked his way up the ranks and in 2016, at the age of 30, he launched his own training career, saddling his first winner at Turfway Park that December. He has based his stable mainly in Kentucky and Arkansas, achieving his first graded stakes success when Zulu Alpha captured the 2019 Grade 3 Sycamore at Keeneland.
Barber Road, by Race Day, has lifted the young conditioner’s profile to another level, closing to hit the board in four consecutive Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races at Oaklawn Park. The grinding colt earned placings in the Smarty Jones [2nd], Grade 3 Southwest [2nd], Grade 2 Rebel [3rd] and Grade 1 Arkansas Derby [2nd].
Last out, he closed from last-of-20 and 19 lengths off the pace under Reylu Gutierrez to finish sixth with a wide run down the lane in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs, finishing just 4 3/4-lengths in arrears of 80-1 upset winner Rich Strike.
“I’ve seen a big maturity boost in him leaving the Kentucky Derby,” Ortiz said. “He finally got that stretch run with no interference and even though he went wide, I was happy to see him able to run in the clear. You could see how hard he was closing. He moved at the same time as Rich Strike- he went to the inside and we went outside, but we were only four lengths short. That gave our horse the strength and fitness we were looking for. He looks more athletic after the Kentucky Derby.”
Barber Road will exit the outside post 8 on Saturday under new rider Joel Rosario, a two-time Belmont Stakes winner.
“I love where we drew on the far outside. We have plenty of stretch to get settled in early in the race,” Ortiz said. “Hopefully, we can get into the right position going into the first turn.
“We’re giving our horse the best shot he can possibly take here with Joel, who is a very experienced local rider,” added Ortiz. “He’s a great match for this horse and this race.”
Ortiz said he is appreciative of Barber Road’s tenacious character.
“He’s hard-knocker and out there to please. You know he’s always giving it all,” Ortiz said. “He trains happily and when he runs, he enjoys it. All I can ask going into a race like this is that they’re fit, happy and sound – I got all three of them and that gives me confidence.”
Ultimately, Ortiz said he would love to see Barber Road win after so many close efforts.
“I want to win for the horse,” Ortiz said. “I like to see horses win because I know how hard they work out in the mornings. It’s not just a human thing. The horses deserve to be recognized for their success and that’s why we take win pictures at the end. They know when they win and I think this horse deserves a shot.”
Ortiz is emotional when speaking about the opportunity to be represented in Saturday’s “Test of the Champion.”
“I’m beyond thankful to be participating in the Belmont Stakes,” Ortiz said. “It’s a race I’ve loved and looked forward to since I was a kid. I grew up in Elmont, New York, so it’s a hometown race for me.
“Belmont is the biggest reason why I am the trainer I am today but also the person I am today,” he continued. “I did all my growing up in Elmont and on the backside of Belmont Park. It’s coming full circle.”
And as for his chances of winning and getting Barber Road that well-deserved stakes win photo?
“I think we can expect some of Joel’s magic,” said Ortiz, with a laugh.
NYRA Press Office
Barber Road’s last work at Churchill Downs. (Coady Photography)